What is Burlap?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Burlap is a woven cloth created from jute, hemp or flax fibers. These plants are not known for their silky or cottony textures, so the result is a coarse fabric with a large weave pattern and natural beige coloring. Burlap is often used to form storage bags for grains, potatoes and other bulky materials. These bags can be imprinted with rudimentary logos or trademarks to help identify their contents. The actual meaning of the word is a bit of a mystery, but some sources also refer to it as Hessian cloth.

Burlap bag with potatoes.
Burlap bag with potatoes.

Cloth made of burlap is also used in the formation of linoleum floor covering. Much like steel rebar in concrete, it reinforces the linoleum and gives it some linear structure. A form of this material may also be found in the underside of carpeting, providing a base for the individual fibers. Some designers may also use burlap panels as wall coverings, since they can hold paint and have distinctive textures.

Close-up view of burlap.
Close-up view of burlap.

Burlap has not received quite the same level of respect as its cousin canvas, but it can be used for similar purposes. Tote bags made of this fabric often replace paper or plastic as an ecological choice for grocery packing. Burlap is also biodegradable, which means all of those potato and apple sacks should eventually disintegrate without harm to the environment. Using jute and hemp fibers also keeps these alternative industries economically viable.

Burlap can be used to create lampshades.
Burlap can be used to create lampshades.

Some attempts have been made over the years to use burlap for inexpensive clothing and other consumer products, but results have been variable. Fabric made from hemp fibers is still too coarse for general comfort. Consumers are far more likely to use this material for tablecloths, decorative throw rugs or other applications. Burlap sacks often contain interesting lithographic images, much like packing crates. These can be used to create decorative tapestries or lampshades with the right combination of craft tools and skills.

Burlap is often woven from jute fibers.
Burlap is often woven from jute fibers.
Burlap is often used to make decorative accents.
Burlap is often used to make decorative accents.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Burlap really does decompose very well. I recently found the remnants of some old burlap potato bags in my backyard, and they were almost gone.

My mother had put the bags out there because she knew that they would return to the earth eventually. After a few rainy weeks and days of hot sunshine, the burlap had already started to turn to dirt.

After a few months, I tugged on a small section of the bag, and only a few fibers pulled up from the earth, followed by dirt that seemed new. I knew that the dirt was mostly made of burlap.


@seag47 – Burlap material is very rough, but I do like the look of it. It has an old school charm, and I admire its simplicity.

I have a burlap beach bag that I take with me to the lake and to the ocean. I put everything from towels to sunscreen in it, and it is strong enough to carry quite a load without tearing.

It does feel rough up against my skin, but just carrying it from the car to the beach doesn't irritate me. It doesn't show dirt much at all, since it is the same color as the sand.

I carry my wet swimsuit in it when I leave, so I always hang it up inside-out to dry when I get home. I wouldn't want it to rot or develop mildew.


I have seen rolls of carpet in a flooring store with burlap on one side. I once saw one that had been rolled up backward, so it looked like a giant burlap roll.

I already knew that burlap lined the bottom of the carpet in my house, because I had discovered it while trying to fix a loose section of carpet in one corner of my room. I was surprised at how rough the bottom of the carpet felt. If that is what all burlap feels like, then I understand why no one wants to wear it!

It's good that the burlap doesn't show through the carpet. I think it is very unattractive, and if I had to walk on it barefoot, it probably would rub sores on my feet!


My sister-in-law wanted me to paint a bouquet of flowers on a piece of burlap for her to hang in her living room. I had never worked with this material before, but I was able to find a roll of burlap at the same crafts store where I purchased all my painting supplies.

I had to secure the burlap tightly around my easel while working on the painting. I knew that any slight folding or creasing could damage the image if it occurred before the paint had fully dried.

The floral scene I painted had colors like burnt orange, creamy white, and brick red, so it looked awesome against the natural beige background. The texture really added something special to the image, as well.


If you're going to use it, the fibers have to be part of the charm. What is the point of using something pro-environment and then spraying it(?) with a chemical? Seriously?


What about spraying it with a clear poly spray, or perhaps even hairspray--something to set the fibers.


Yes! I need to know, also, for tables at my daughter's wedding reception! Thanks for your ideas!


What can i use on a burlap tablecloth to keep it from getting fibers on people's pants and skirts?

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